Jesse Schenker: "This Is Not a Career, It's a Livelihood"
That Jesse Schenker's cookbook collection is more than 350 volumes deep is not so much a reflection of his use of recipes at it is a window into his utter obsession with food--he thinks about his craft constantly, even when he's not at work, and he has since he was very young. The chef grew up in South Florida, and he relished time in the kitchen with his grandmother and great grandmother, who, he says, cooked constantly. His own mother was less culinarily inclined, but when she noticed Schenker's enthusiasm, she began setting him up with a little mat chopping vegetables anytime she was preparing a meal.
By high school, Schenker had began to push his cooking further; he'd smoke a bunch of pot, he says, and then make up things, like "hot dogs marinated in teriyaki sauce and rolled in roast beef. I was always the guy that if you left me in the house, I would make something out of what I found in the cabinet." His meals eventually became edible, too, and around that time, he found a job as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, working his way up to the line while attending a vocational school for culinary arts and completing his GED.
After graduation, Schenker bounced around celebrated Floridian restaurants, eventually rising to a sous chef position before landing a stage and then a job at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in the London Hotel here in New York City. "That was my discovery of modern French," he says, and it coincided with the first New York City Michelin Guide, which also opened Schenker's eyes to what was going on in Europe.
Though he was working long hours, Schenker's obsession with cookbooks and creative cooking never faltered, and he was soon throwing semi-underground supper club gatherings with the help of Brian Ghaw and Christina Lee, a pastry alum of Per Se and Falai. Recette Private Dining exploded--the crew catered a 1,400-person VH1 party in its first year of existence--and the chef quit his job to look for spaces. In 2010, he and his wife, Lindsay, opened Recette (328 West 12th Street, 212-414-3000) in the West Village.
He intended that space, he says, to become a neighborhood joint, with rock 'n' roll on the stereo and a casual vibe, but after Sam Sifton gave it a glowing pair of stars, Recette morphed into a destination dining establishment built on tasting menus. And so earlier this year, the Schenkers debuted The Gander (15 West 18th Street, 646-682-7949), a restaurant, says the chef, that's "everything I can't do at Recette," including a big bar, a private dining room, and a menu meant to draw people several days a week.
In this interview, Schenker weighs in on his cookbook collection, the state of the industry, and why you should be paying attention to the wine list at The Gander.